What we can learn from Amy Beach’s Four Sketches, Op. 15 No. 1: In Autumn (1892)
Many consider Amy Beach (1867 - 1944) to be the first great American female composer. Although she grew up in a comfortable New England household, her childhood was marked by conflicts between her prodigious musical talent and the prescribed gender roles of her time. Her mother, Clara Cheney, was reluctant to allow Amy to explore her talents, because she wanted her to be prepared for her domestic responsibilities as a wife and mother.
As she grew older, Amy’s talent was increasingly evident. With absolute pitch and an uncanny ability to recall and play back difficult pieces by ear, Amy was a wonder at the piano, especially when she began taking lessons. When she was sixteen, Clara finally allowed Amy to pursue serious concertizing, and her performances were highly praised. But her projected future as wife and mother still lay before her. Amy married Henry Harris Aubrey Beach—a widower twenty-five years her senior—in 1885, when she was eighteen years old. Both her mother and new husband expected that Amy would give up her professional aspirations, but encouraged her to pursue composing as it could be done within the home. Amy respected the tenets of her marriage agreement—including the abandonment of her performing career—for the length of her marriage. After her husband and mother died in 1910 and 1911, respectively, Amy began prolifically touring and performing (in addition to composing), relaunching her career in a profound way.
Amy Beach's life and career provide important context for students who may be unfamiliar with the obstacles facing women in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Discussing societal expectations and gender conventions is a good way to approach the question of why female composers have lacked visibility throughout Western music history. It is also valuable to discuss how textbooks and academic resources tend to perpetuate this lack of visibility by continuing to marginalize women composers. While it may seem unimportant in the theory classroom, the examples we choose for score study, analysis, assignments, and discussion can send an implicit message about what music is good music, and what is not. It is also important to approach issues of representation with transparency in an effort to empower students as future educators.
In this blog post, I'll discuss the first movement, In Autumn. The clash between F# minor and A major, finally assuaged by the ultimate shift to F# major in the final measures, provides a great opportunity for hermeneutic analysis as it relates to the poetic incipit from Alphonse de Lamartine's L’automne. The opening parallel progressive period (F# minor to A major) features sentence structure, and two common-tone augmented sixth chords (Ger+6, measures 4 and 10; Example 1).
Another German chord, in measure 8, occurs in the predominant area and is achieved via harmonization of a 4 - #4 - 5 bass line (Example 2). The cadential extension of the second sentence features rich embellishments, including accented ornamental dissonances.
The contrasting B section (measure 39) begins with a brief tonicization of the Neapolitan (Example 3). The opening phrase (measures 39 - 46) has characteristics of sentence structure, and concludes with a PAC.
After embellished repetition of this phrase (as in the first period), transitional material based on motives from the A section lead to a pedal on C# (trill) in measures 61 - 62. While this trill is originally heard as the mediant, the deceptive motion in the following elided cadence (E7 chord to the F# minor relaunch of the A section, measure 63) reinterprets it as the dominant scale degree. The A section is harmonically altered upon its return. Where the original progressive period began in F# minor and modulated to A major, the second sentence of this later period begins in the parallel major after rapidly descending chromatic sixteenth-notes embellish a C# dominant seventh. The PAC in F# major at the end of this progressive period is elided with the reprise of the B section in the same key (elided cadence, Example 4).
The reprise of B and subsequent codetta feature heavy embellishment and ornamentation (including a tonic pedal, chromatic neighbor tones and incomplete neighbor tones, chromatic accented passing tones, upward-resolving suspensions/retardations) and chromatic harmony (secondary dominants and modal mixture). The penultimate chord is a common-tone Ger+6.
This is just a sample of some of the valuable information in this set of pieces. In Autumn is a great piece for analysis, and contains excellent examples of chromatic chords, cadences, phrase and periodic structures, motivic development, and contrapuntal use of dissonance.